It’s been more than two decades since Less Than Zero branded Bret Easton Ellis part of the Literary Brat Pack and buried him deep in the DNA of Controversial Youth Stories to come. So a sequel, Imperial Bedrooms—timed with the 25th anniversary re-release of Zero, the 1985 book by the then-21-year-old Bennington undergrad—sounds like a lame, mostly disingenuous ploy for money. If anything, the books’ dual appearance evokes some pretty simple criterion: Does Ellis still have it? And did he ever have it in the first place?
Well, Zero still feels remarkably solid 25 years later. Ellis’s first-person chronicle of Clay, the how-many-ways-can-you-say-“disaffected” college freshman home in L.A. for Christmas from his East Coast liberal arts school, remains razor-sharp at 208 pages. The stark, emotional austerity of Clay’s bare, lyrical narrative was the rare occurrence of fundamental craftsmanship and mostly unbridled artistry. Back then, the “shock” factor came from the question of whether or not kids in L.A. were actually living like this: snuff films, teenagers fucking, drinking, and snorting, and maybe getting into some prostitution as well.
Zero‘s weakness—a meandering plot where we wait for the characters to motivate themselves into caring about something—is forgivable. In 2010, its chronicling of rich and fabulous teen life makes Gossip Girl look like an after-school special. It now reads less like a coming-of-age story and more like an existential fairy tale explaining what happens when parents have everything but the capacity to love their children.
These kids, grown up, are the stars of Imperial Bedrooms, which seems written as the book that’s meant to put these characters (and many of Ellis’s others like them) to rest. The novel follows the group of friends 25 years later, again from the perspective of Clay, Zero’s sad young thing home for the holiday, though now he’s a middle-aged screenwriter back from New York to cast his latest film. But Imperial Bedrooms is less sequel, more literary sleight-of-hand. The winding psychological meta-gutpunch Ellis pulls in the book’s first two sentences (“They had made a movie about us. The movie was based on a book written by someone we knew”) re-contextualizes Zero entirely: As it turns out, all of the events of Zero were the construct of someone who wasn’t, in fact, Clay. And that’s just the first of many twists like it to come.
What follows is a page-turner both for readers who haven’t read Zero (the first problem with sequels of any kind) and those who have. The gang’s all here: Blair, the pretty heartbreaker; Julian, the dangerous fuck-up; Rip, the terrifyingly handsome devil. As adults, they’ve taken to undercutting each other over a young actress they’ve all fallen in love with, who’s angling for a part in Clay’s film. Older and richer, they now find themselves able to fuel sinister extremes, acts that lead Clay to devolve from concerned observer into a paranoid, desperate mess trying to make sense of his surroundings. The pop-culture references are there, though updated—the National, Bat for Lashes, Josh Hartnett—and the simple, stark austere language of Zero is the same.
For Ellis, there are certainly no new moves here. But at 192 pages, Imperial Bedrooms is a quicker, more controlled fire than its predecessor, and, like a good showman, Ellis has learned to save the best of the novel’s many tricks for last. The remarkably disturbing final 15 pages will inevitably be interpreted as a slap in the face to some readers. It may very well be. Yet this is the crucial point where Imperial Bedrooms becomes Ellis’s Godfather II, his Genesis story, in which we learn how Zero‘s problem children came to be: They’re the result of the people who failed to raise them—their parents, traditionally the first and last line of compassion for anyone growing up in this world. For his first novel, Ellis was likely too young (or too close) to the situation to understand these people and how they became the way they were, how they yielded the children (and book) he did. He definitely knows now, and the result is devastating. In fact, it’s safe to say that—like these characters—old age and treachery have served Bret Easton Ellis quite well.